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My Way or Norway

Stephen White
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Two weeks left to go before the House of Commons votes on Theresa May’s EU Withdrawal plan. At this stage it is so highly unlikely that it will be approved that continuing to promote it, as she is with a nation-wide roadshow, looks like political suicide. So inevitably we see objectors to her plan offering their alternatives ever more stridently. The one in vogue as I write is Norway+.

My purpose here is neither to commend nor attack her proposal or any of the ‘Plan B’suggestions. Rather it is to ask questions about the nature of Plan B options from a negotiator’s perspective. I suggest 5 issues which need to be considered.

Firstly, without a Plan B there is inevitable merging of objective and strategy – in effect the negotiator is saying both that ‘what I need’ is only achievable through one strategy, and that my  strategy and what I need are inextricably linked . Combining them into one policy gives the objectives and the strategy equal priority. This is self-limiting and almost never true – objectives are always more important than strategies. 

Secondly, having no Plan B seems to lend power to the solus strategy - to paraphrase the Blog title, My way or the Highway. But this power is illusory if the perception is that actually there are alternatives to Plan A. At the moment the EU negotiators are saying they will not reopen or amend the deal agreed by the 27 member countries last Sunday. But there are plenty of signals that they will. Individual EU member states are saying so openly

Additionally, having no Plan B, or at least admitting to no Plan B, will induce panic if it looks like Plan A is going to fail. The result of that panic is most likely a hurried outcome that will have unintended consequences and in the longer term will prove to be a poor choice.

Thirdly, promoting more than one option gives the other side choice; and people like choice (or rather they prefer it to being railroaded). But the choices have to be more or less realistic and palatable. At the moment the only choice on offer is Mrs May’s deal or a No-deal Brexit which most members of the public, and therefore their MPs, and the EU, do not subscribe to. 

Fourthly, it is never too late to introduce a Plan B into a negotiation, if both sides recognise the need to achieve the objective rather than pursue a strategy. If the reading of the tea leaves in Brussels is the same as that in the UK, that the current Plan will be voted down by the UK Parliament, then it is in everybody’s interest to be open to alternatives. Of course there will be some grandstanding and brinksmanship.

Fifthly, notwithstanding ‘never too late’,  any Plan B has to be introduced early enough for people to be able to discuss it, understand it, negotiate it, improve it. Norway+, like Canada+++, has been lurking at the edges of debate for months and has generally been discounted because it requires continued free movement of labour and continued payments into the EU coffers. Are these issues resolvable? It may be too late to find out because the idea has become established in the mainstream too late in the day for the problems to be analysed and solutions to be proposed.

In summary negotiators need Plan B strategies in their negotiating thinking. What, how, and when is debatable, but the concept is not.

Stephen White

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